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A Pre-OT's Guide to Observation Hours

by Beth Kramer


So, you’ve decided you want to become an occupational therapist, and have begun applying for programs. But somewhere between typing your transcript into OTCAS and crafting that perfect personal statement, you’ve stumbled upon the phrase “observation hours.” If you’ve come across those words and found yourself stuck there, we have written a guide based on personal experiences as a future occupational therapist hard at work on accumulating her own observation hours.

Lay a Strong Foundation

Many Master’s and Doctoral programs in occupational therapy require that prospective students observe a practicing occupational therapist for at least 40 hours. Some programs recommend that these hours come from at least two settings and populations.

While not always directly stated in programs’ application materials, programs and students alike interpret these numbers as minimum thresholds rather than absolute guidelines. Perusing threads on Student Doctor Network and Occupational Therapy’s Subreddit, you will find prospective students who have racked up as many as 300 hours in a total of four or more settings.

These numbers look intimidating. The time it takes to get them may seem overwhelming. Especially when, like all of us, you are already pressed for time due to your job, significant other, family, friends, pets, or other commitments. To make the process of accruing observation hours feel more attainable, try reframing the process of acquiring observation hours not as a challenge but as an opportunity. 

An opportunity to see how therapists apply interventions, interact with patients and their families, manage time on the job, and engage with their coworkers and supervisors. Use this time to learn what settings and populations appeal to you! It will help to set yourself up for greater success as you set off toward your future careers.

Look Around

Your local hospitals, nursing homes, rehabilitation facilities, and VA Medical Centers all have volunteer programs future OTs can become a part of. For example, Medstar National Rehabilitation Network, located in Washington, DC, Maryland, and Virginia, has a Career Exposure Program in which individuals interested in healthcare careers can observe professionals in their department of interest.

National nonprofits that support those with developmental disabilities, such as The Arc, Easter Seals, and United Cerebral Palsy (UCP), have affiliated organizations located throughout the country that offer direct services to their clients. These include occupational, physical, and speech therapy.  Check to see if your local affiliated chapter has opportunities that would enable you to volunteer while observing an occupational therapist. 

While volunteering, don't forget to cultivate your own personal and professional networks. You may discover unexpected connections in the field, since people of all backgrounds may need occupational therapy at some point in their lives. 

Even if these links feel vague, don’t be afraid to reach out to these contacts (or contacts of contacts) to get started. Remember, you are entering a helping profession that encourages people to achieve their goals! 

Wait for It

Before you start observing, there are many processes you will need to complete. Since these processes involve lag time, reach out to organizations and/or facilities where you would like to observe an occupational therapist as soon as possible.

In addition to completing a volunteer application, you can expect an interview, and the need to provide paperwork confirming you have undergone medical tests and vaccinations, which at a minimum will include a flu shot and TB test. If you are planning to observe at a VA Medical Center or at a facility that provides services to children, there will also be a background check.

This entire process may take up to several weeks, so be patient, yet persistent by emailing and/or calling to get a timeline of when you can expect to start observing. Staff at hospitals, rehab facilities, and nonprofits are constantly juggling multiple priorities, and reminding them of your enthusiasm to observe an occupational therapist will drive this process forward.

To make the most of this lag time, look ahead to additional sites where you can observe occupational therapists. Achieving breadth by observing occupational therapy with a variety of populations will provide greater insight into your chosen profession. And by reaching out to multiple sites simultaneously, you will reduce the lag time on successive placements. It’s never too early to line up your next observation opportunity.

The Room Where It Happens

Once your paperwork has been reviewed and processed, it's time to observe. There are basic rules of etiquette on how to conduct yourself in a professional setting, that you should ensure you are meeting.

Ask questions! When observing an occupational therapist, be sure to ask how and why a specific intervention is being used—be it how splinting can help a child with Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA), or why a certified hand therapist (CHT) has immersed a patient’s hand in a vial of water to measure its swelling.

Remember, just because you are observing, does not mean you are stuck on the sidelines. Speak with patients, and jump at any and all opportunities to help with assisting the occupational therapist you are observing. It will help you become adjusted to what your future holds, and learn the day-to-day activities of an OT. 

What Comes Next?

Once you’ve fulfilled your observation hours at your site, what comes next? Before setting off on your next opportunity, close the loop at your current one. It may seem obvious to thank the occupational therapist you have observed for their time and guidance, but don’t let the rapport you have built end on your last day.

Be sure to get their contact information so that you can keep in touch with them. Since they may be your first mentor and career advocate, add them to your network. More often than not, they will happily answer your calls anytime you have a question about the field. Additionally, they could be used in the future to write a letter of recommendation on your behalf for OT school. After all, the OT you have observed was once in your shoes. This means that you, in turn, can look forward to the time when you are an experienced therapist with an aspiring observer of your own.

Do you have any advice from your own observation experiences? Please share it with us in the comments!

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